While doing some research into fallacies (on Wikipedia, what else) I came across this…er…quaint Russian phrase…
А у вас негров линчуют
And you are lynching negroes
The term whataboutism (brought into lexicon by Edward Lucas) outlines the Soviet/Russian approach to criticism. When accused of some wrongdoing Russian politicians and propagandists would often try to shift blame on their critics.
While Wikipedia claims the origins of the above quoted phrase lies in political jokes, it serves as a perfect example of whataboutism. When accused of abusing human rights the Soviets would often fire back by targeting America’s Achilles heel: race. The mistreatment of blacks, not to mention women and the poor, in America was a favourite target for Soviet propagandists. This was an excellent strategy for the Soviets, as bringing attention to Jim Crow would certainly have helped to legitimise the early Soviet regime. This tendency only became more pronounced, and more potent, when the Soviets entered into direct competition with the United States in the Cold War, where winning over multi-ethnic third world nations was critical. This tactic gradually lost potency as apartheid in the U.S. was addressed with the Civil Rights movement, and as Soviet abuses became more egregiously mundane. However this tendency to shift blame was not just a passing fad, but rather a tactic that Russia uses, and uses well, in the present day.
We’re not talking about hard power, that is, economic and military muscle, but rather about soft power. The Cold War was not just an icy standoff of nuclear tipped ICBMs, but a living, breathing, warm brawl aimed at winning as many hearts and minds as possible. Hard power may have started the Cold War, but soft power flavoured it and, ultimately, ended it. That is the first lesson here. The second is that domestic politics have a significant effect on international affairs. Domestic policies can completely undermine soft power or grant it tremendous legitimacy.
As we’ve mentioned before, whataboutism was used to legitimize Soviet rule and, later, to compete for international interest. To a great extent this made for an excellent political weapon during the Cold War. It was the West, not Russia, which had engaged in oppressive imperialism well into the middle of the 20th century, and this enabled the Soviet Union to justify its international efforts to promote Communism. Exactly how effective whataboutism was is hard to say, but I suppose that it varied place to place. The Vietnamese, under immediate threat from the French and, later, Americans, (and indirectly from the Chinese) would have been natural allies to the Soviets regardless of rhetoric. Whataboutism was likely more potent in Africa, where Russia could clearly point to the oppression of African Americans in the United States in order to peddle influence (ironically prejudice against Africans exists in Russia just as it does in America).
Even if we limit our view to Africa though the efficacy of whataboutism is questionable. The United States after all still managed to create bastions of influence in Latin America and Africa (sometimes by backing violent coups or dictatorial leaders, which the Soviets would love to point out).I see whataboutism less as a vehicle for foreign policy as more as a useful defense mechanism. It freed the Soviets from the need to justify their own abuses and it put pressure on the West. While the West was eager to condemn Communism as backwards, the Soviets were at least able to level the playing ground by creating doubts about Capitalism. They would have been able to appeal to historically oppressed nationalities and minorities. Overall it seems like whataboutism meshed well with the overall Soviet logic of waging a Cold War by subverting and undermining faith in the West
Taking the Bait: the Helsinke Accords and the Decline of Whataboutism
Jimmy Carter may just be one of our most influential presidents, as Schmitz would agree. He was the first to place great importance on human rights, and he dramatically altered his foreign policy to show this. Ironically though, Carter was fine with expanding detente with the U.S.S.R. despite their human rights violations, something which Reagan and other conservatives were eager to point out. But in retrospect what was Carter supposed to do? The Soviets had agreed to observe human rights before he even came into office.
Yes, in 1975 the Soviets signed an international agreement where they guaranteed human rights within their borders. This agreement, the Helsinke Final Act, may have just been more significant than the arms limitations treaties that Nixon, Carter, and Reagan signed. If we view soft power as key, the unlikely President Ford may have won the Cold War. The Helsinke Final Act gutted the Soviet ability to defend human rights abuses and provided enough traction for grassroots activism to form. Dissidents, among them former atomic bomb designer Sakharov, now had grounds for criticising Communist rule.
Why would Brezhnev, who brutally crushed any attempts at secession and had anti-Communists committed to insane asylums, ever agree to such a treaty? Quite frankly, Brezhnev valued hard power over soft power. He underestimated the impact that promising human rights would have. He also liked the clause of the treaty which legitimised Soviet territorial gains from WWII.
To conclusively prove that the Helsinke Accords marked the decline of Whataboutism would require far more time and space than I have here, but I think I can feasibly make the claim that the Final Act was a part of an overall decline in blame shifting. Brezhnev’s human rights record was already something of a joke, as if his 1968 crushing of the Prague Spring revolt hadn’t made this abundantly clear, and the Soviets were losing traction in the soft power war. At this point the United States had tidied up their own house sufficiently for the Soviets to have trouble pulling the race card. Their was still the issue posed by S. African apartheid of course, which Reagan had defended, but this form of racism was becoming the exception rather than the norm. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 obviously did not help the U.S.S.R.’s image in the soft power wars, and continued abuse of human rights, in clear violation of the Helsinke Accords, only turned Brezhnev’s regime into a laughing stock.
As the U.S.S.R. slipped into crisis in the 80s, Gorbachev sought to repair the Soviet reputation and keep the Soviet state alive. His glasnost reforms gave critics more freedoms to criticize the regime. Some activists were satisfied, but a great deal only wanted greater reforms. Nationalists and/or democracy advocates, among them Boris Yeltsin, would play a significant role in upending the Soviet Union in the period from 88-91.
Iraq, Crimea, Ferguson, and the Revival of Whataboutism
The collapse of the U.S.S.R. left Russia reeling for over a decade. Putin was eventually able to get Russia back on its feet and he put Russia’s foreign policy back online as a force to be reckoned with. If Drezner is to be believed, whataboutism played a significant part in this revival, and it is safe to say that it has returned as a feature of Russian rhetoric.
Many in the West criticize Russia’s treatment of its LGBTQ citizenry (and rightly so), but Russia has been able to gain traction against the West with the recent attention to given to police killings of African Americans in America. Russia has a point, as they had in the past: how can a nation call others out for human rights abuses when their own house is not in order?
But whataboutism has also been used in a far more effective and dangerous manner by Russia. Take for instance the reactions to the seizure of Crimea in 2014. The West cried foul and condemned Russia for violating the sovereignty of Ukraine. Russia was able to fire back though, claiming that the United States had no right to talk since it had violated Iraqi sovereignty in the years prior with a unilateral invasion.
As with Cold War era whataboutism I don’t think we should be quick to dismiss this. Many in the West seem to be eager to discount Russia’s claims or undermine their rhetoric. While Russia is by no means justified, it still raises critical issues that are dangerous to ignore. In the 1950s Russia brought attention to the plight of African Americans. In the present, Russia raises question of US hegemony and what limits it might have. But I think that Russia’s use of whataboutism in this context is more dangerous than it previously has been. Whataboutism isn’t just used as a defense mechanism but rather as a weapon of foreign policy used to justify Russian interventionism. It becomes even more dangerous for the US to answer to when one considers Russian rhetoric claiming that the US destabilized the Middle East, which led to the rise of ISIS. The West has shown cohesion thus far in confronting Russia with sanctions and recriminations, and I think that their is a remarkable and dangerous amount of sycophancy. It is great that the NATO alliance members can actually stand up to Russia, but I feel like by ignoring or dismissing the Russian side of the story we risk crafting a weaker foreign policy.
Whataboutism should not be treated as a joke or a formality that comes in dealing with Russia. Whataboutism should be a call for intensive introspection and an engine for self-improvement. Creating a more harmonious domestic and foreign policy will greatly benefit the West, while granting them more leverage against Russia.
Drezner, Daniel W. “Ferguson, whataboutism, and American soft power.” The Washington Post. 20 August 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/08/20/ferguson-whataboutism-and-american-soft-power/
Lucas, Edward. “Whataboutism.” The Economist. 31 January 2008. http://www.economist.com/node/10598774
Schmitz, David F. The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships. New York: Cambridge, 2006.